Queens of the Wild: Pagan Goddesses in Christian Europe: An Investigation

Queens of the Wild: Pagan Goddesses in Christian Europe: An Investigation

Ronald Hutton
New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2022. 245 pp., hardcover, $25.  

Discerning the relationship between paganism and Christianity over a thousand-year period in any geographical context is both complex and contentious. Examining presuppositions, clarifying categories, gathering evidence, mastering relevant critical literature, and crafting an effective argument—perchance with eloquence—require persistence, courage, and something akin to a sense of vocation. This is especially so when members of the intended audience feel they have a stake in the conclusions. The difficulty is further heightened when the tasks are undertaken, as many early modern writers had to put it, “in time of pestilence”— in this case, the academically inhospitable time of COVID-19.

All these factors conspired against the British historian Ronald Hutton in his seemingly simple project of tracing the origin and development of a handful of godlike female figures in medieval and modern European culture. Remarkable in the cohort of pandemic-age publications, Queens of the Wild speaks far beyond the circumstances of its composition and release. It addresses deep and perennial questions at the core of Western self-understanding.

Hutton is no stranger to scholarly controversy or the study of royals, both natural and supernatural. Long associated with the University of Bristol in the U.K., he has contributed significantly to research on the British Civil War, the Restoration, and the Stuart monarchs. Since the 1990s, he has gained recognition as an authority in a second specialty, much broader than but still including the seventeenth century: the academic study of ancient Britain and the full sweep of Western paganism from prehistory to the present day. This agenda, enhanced by his familiarity with cognate fields of archaeology and folklore studies, has brought Hutton increased exposure and even celebrity as a media personality, landing him guest appearances on BBC specials, such as Sacred Wonders of Britain and other platforms, such as Ancient Aliens. It has also revealed fault lines within the community of his contemporary pagan readers.

Hutton’s empathetic yet critical approach, dedicated to following evidence wherever it leads while advocating for appreciation of pagan paths in contemporary society, has sparked considerable self-examination and sometimes division among practitioners, especially reigning leaders of pagan networks. Queens of the Wild continues this pattern of old-school objectivity, interrogation of historiographical orthodoxies, and celebration of pagan wisdom.

Between the book’s first chapter, longer than any other in the volume, and the chapter-length epilogue, four chapters explore the history and meaning of intriguing superhuman female beings selected from the folklore and literature of European peoples, figures that blur the boundaries between pagan and Christian.

These are the sovereigns signaled by the book’s provocative title: Mother Earth, known by many names, including the Great Goddess; the Fairy Queen, associated with mysterious realms populated by elves and sprites; the Lady of the Night, variously identified as Diana, Herodias, and Holda, famous for her nocturnal voyages and benevolence with food and drink; and the Cailleach, the giant Old Woman or Hag of Gaelic legend, linked to fierce landscapes only slightly more forbidding than herself. According to Hutton, all four are transgressive, all exercise agency rarely exhibited in patriarchal systems, and all are products of medieval or modern milieus. In other words, the pagan goddesses in Christian Europe (at least this chosen quartet) turn out to be not so pagan after all—and not so Christian either.

Many readers, convinced by luminaries from Jacquetta Hawkes and Marija Gimbutas to Robert Graves and Carl Jung, will be especially surprised to learn that the myth of a single Great Goddess permeating global cultures before an Axial Age assertion of patriarchy owes its existence principally to medieval humanists, Victorian rural enthusiasts, and twentieth-century distorters of archeological data.  

Hutton’s unsensational prose and genteel style help even the truest of believers give his revisionism a fair hearing. The case for what critics might call debunking is laid out in the first chapter, where Hutton argues against “pagan survival,” the claim of an integral pagan tradition enduring through the Middles Ages, but documents the possibility of “pagan survivals,” elements of pre-Christian traditions persevering through channels such as popular service magic and any number of folk customs.

The epilogue, on Britain’s not-so-feminine Green Man, with fascinating asides on the curious foliate heads and unabashed sheela-na-gigs of medieval cathedral art, reiterates Hutton’s conclusion about the irrepressible creativity of the Western imagination, which fits only awkwardly into abstract categories of pagan or Christian. The structure of the book itself identifies this theme as his central idea: just over half of the text focuses on female archetypes. Mistitled, Queens of the Wild is a lucid invitation to explore the free interaction of pagan and Christian in the untamed Western mind.

Peter A. Huff, an academic administrator and professor of religious studies, is the author or editor of seven books. His article “The Current State of Unbelief” appeared in Quest, spring 2022.